Sorsonet is the last track on our debut album Takhaudi Dekau When I first began to think about recording some of the music I was doing in Gambia what I wanted to do was something instrumental and balafon (West African xylophone) led. The first recording Toumaranke ever did (a disaster documented in my last blog article Toumaranke Song Series. 1: Toumaranke – our ‘theme tune’….) was instrumental. The beauty and clarity of the sound of the Mandinka balafon (a hepatonic instrument as opposed to the pentatonic Gyil played in Ghana) has always been precious to me. There are many different kinds of xylophones or balafons, literally ‘wood that talks’ in West Africa, with a bewildering complexity of tunings, constructions, histories and mysteries but the Mandinka balafon is the one that has always spoken the loudest to my heart. The Guineans I work with simply call it the bala so I tend to use that terminology too.
I began learning bala around eight years ago and have worked with several teachers, all Guineans apart from my newest teacher Sefo Kanuteh, a Gambian living in Norwich. We’ve known each other a while but he became one of my teachers this year and I had the pleasure of performing with him at Drum Camp, with several of my students. It was an extraordinary experience and one none of us will forget, six balafons on stage, not something you get to see very often! It was very generous of him to agree to solo with us and we’re hoping to develop some more work together. One of the pieces we played was an arrangement of Sorsonet.
Sorsonet is a rhythm which has always fascinated me. I first came across it as a djembe piece and it wasn’t until much later I discovered there were bala and various other instrumental parts for it. It was while working in the Cassamance with the group Wassolo and with Moussa that I fist fell in love with it as a balafon piece. Wassolo performed it in the Abene festival in 2009. I was unexpectedly allowed to play with them on stage although due to various complications I got given a gongo at the start, rather than the shakers I was used to, and so it was rather a fraught experience to begin with. Sadly the track Sorsonet didn’t get recorded by the person I’d hastily shoved a video at. I’ve got a bit of recording from rehearsals but it was done as a kind of comedy piece and the acting was very funny so I’m sad to not have a clear video of it. The song I initially learned for it, and which I still use when teaching the rhythm, came first of all from Morley Toure who was the artistic director of Wassolo at that point. This was also the time when the term Toumaranke, Susu for ‘outsider’ came into my life, although Moussa wasn’t consistantly calling me that yet.
Sefo is a Griot (that word tends to be used by Francophones, the English equivalent is Jali or Jeli), a musician from a family tradition that stretches back in time a long long way in the West African tradition – depending on sources to the 13th or 14th century. These heriditory musical families generally play one instrument balafon/kora/djembe etc… passing along the knowledge of it’s construction, care, maintenance and playing. This is generally father to son, women are not forbidden the bala and some can and do play, but not many. Most griot women sing and play some kind of metal-based small hand percussion. The art of the jelimuso is in itself a fascinating thing. Banning Eyre talks about it a bit in his book In Griot Time and there’s an interesting article on it by Helen Webb.
Sefo is unusual as he plays both balafon and kora (West African harp). All the other griot balafon players I’ve worked with have been trained from very young to concentrate on playing bala (although they are generally more than competent at all kinds of other things too, drums, bolon, krin; some also sing, some play guitar or keyboards these days also, but their main instrument is usually bala or kora, not both). My first teacher was a Guinean Griot and so is Mohammed Camara, aka Mamadou Ba, the balafon player on Toumaranke‘s debut CD. My husband, Moussa Sylla, is a non-griot bala player, more and more common these days as the ‘closed’ system of griot families keeping their musical knowledge inside the family begins to open up.
Although I had played in groups with Mamadou Ba, mostly Bafila, (a group of Guineans I played with in Gambia for a while which I’ve talked about in previous articles) he hadn’t been my teacher; so working with him on the album was interesting as we didn’t have a previously established apprentice/master relationship. There wasn’t time for me to study bala with him as well as getting the recording done and it hasn’t been possible afterwards as he went back to Guinea shortly after the album was finished and he and Moussa have temporarily lost contact. Relations with my first bala teacher fell apart. (I’ve written a fair bit about the complications of working with largely male, impoverished West African musicians as a female white Westerner in other blog articles and there are, indeed, many complications). Since then I’ve been mostly learning bala (and most other things musical) from my husband Moussa Sylla, who was originally studying under the same teacher as me. I learned most of what I know about repairing the balafon from him as our then teacher gave him the task of showing me that side of things. I’ve written about Moussa, who is an extraordinary musician as well as a great composer and arranger, in one of the articles on the musicians of Toumaranke, a previous blog series.
Mamadou Ba tended to overestimate my ability to remember things after being shown them once. This is a often a problem for me when working with Griots, who are trained from children and live and breathe music. He’d had very little experience of Westerners, done no teaching and had no ‘students’ of his own as far as I know. He had two ‘apprentices’, Moïse Bangoura and Souleymane Camara, who joined Toumaranke with him to work on the album but he didn’t seem to be teaching them bala. He was very patient considering what must have appeared to be an appalling level of inability on my part! We were comfortable with each other, although verbal communication was limited as he hadn’t had any formal schooling. This is common in Griots of his generation in Guinea, their schooling is music, there is no time, or money, (or sometimes desire, I know some families feel sending children to school will ‘spoil’ them as formal education is sometimes seen as a colonial legacy and undesirable) for school. So his French (formal education is in French in Guinea, English in Gambia, this is a colonial legacy but with such multilinguistic countries the politics of trying to decide which one to make the language is education is so fraught no-one wants to even think about it!) is limited and so is my Susu. Moussa must have told him I was reliable as an accompanist and he’d had direct experience of my ability to keep to a beat percussively when we’d both worked together in Bafila. I’ve been well trained to stick to one thing and one tempo and carry on with it whatever else happens.
In terms of musical collaboration Mamadou Ba created the bala accompaniments for a couple of the tracks on the album. The accompaniment pattern for Takhaudi Dékau was his although it changed various times and I just had to choose one of the variations he’d shown me and stick to it. He and Moussa had collaborated musically on some tracks – others Moussa created and then he just fitted in whatever he felt was appropriate bala wise. I’d had a little bit of time to rehearse with the band before they started their three months of practice prior to the two weeks we spent recording and so had a tiny bit of time as his accompanist before we started the actual process. I’d had loads of practice as Moussa’s accompanist so was relying on that training to get me through. I’d taken video and audio of everything possible to work on back in England and we’d all agreed anything I couldn’t manage I simply wouldn’t play on.
The hardest part of the whole project emotionally for me was going back to England to fundraise and not being able to come back at all while the others rehearsed and worked on the material for recording. I so wanted to stay and work with them, it would have been fascinating; it would have been brilliant for developing my musical ability. But the only one of us capable of doing the fundraising was me (with some help from Martin Messent, our sound engineer who co-produced the album with me) – so back I went! I thought working on the instrumentals was going to be the easiest part of making the CD, and it was one of the few things I was right about. What I’d suggested for these was that I would just play one of the accompaniment patterns for a track and Mamadou Ba and Moussa would improvise around me. Then we’d record it and see what we had and tweak if necessary. Recording the instrumental tracks just took one day out of the entire 2 weeks. We did two takes of Sorsonet and and used the first one as it was utterly stunning. The two have different but very complimentary solo styles. The most difficult thing for me was trying not to listen to them or I’d have just stopped in awe!
Sorsonet is a Guinean rhythm from the Baga tribe in the Boke region. All I really know about it is that it’s part of a men’s ‘mystery tradition’ and comes from a mask dance/ritual. Most of my teachers and musical colleges have been Susu or Malinke so my knowledge of Baga traditions is limited to say the least. There’s an article in mandebala about it which goes into a bit of ethnomusicological detail and has some pictures of the mask but I’ve no idea how accurate it is or what currently goes on around this rhythm/mystery. The word bandafeleko appears in this article which was part of the song that I picked up from Morley. When I asked about the song, then and now, no-one could tell me what it actually means (maybe because it’s in Baga?). The version I learned was – Bandafeleko (pronounced banafelako) yea, bandafeleko na, bandafeleko ni oh na, bandafeleko yea although I also use annother one, learned with the djembe rhythm in Gambia from a different Guinean source – master Abdulaye Keita. Susu is hard to write – even phonetically – but here goes – Wunga wa lus-o-o day, Wunga wa lus-o-o day
Wunga wa lus-o-o w’untina matu, Wunga wa lus-o-o sembayrah. It means (more or less) – let’s work together today with a view to tomorrow. If you listen to the Toumaranke track Akhalande which starts with the lyric ‘wunga cata akhalande’ that will help you pronounce the ‘wunga’ bit….
Toumaranke have done lots of different interpretations of Sorsonet. An early ‘musical’ one uses the rhythm of the traditional song outlined above but with the words for what eventually became the track Toumaranke. Another version, closer to the one on the album, was developed during the time we spent together as a group of five in early 2012 when I was beginning to think and plan seriously for a CD. For the album we overdubbed with krin (log drum) and bolon, (Moussa on the krin and Okameo making a great job of the bolon), but we didn’t use the gongo (West African idiophone). Going back in time I find lots of material, Moussa developing his solo techniques and me developing my ‘playing the accompaniment steadily’ techniques, here’s one from 2010 and one I put on Soundcloud which says 2015 but I think I got confused and it’s earlier than that. somewhere I’ve got a version with Moussa playing bala and the extraordinary Sana Conde accompaning on ballet duns but I can’t currently find it. Hopefully I’ll update this post later with that one as well. It’s a beautiful rhythm and there are many many possibilities for arranging it.